Manchester United FC 2-0 Arsenal FC (FA Cup quarter-final): MATCH REVIEW

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 12: Fabio Da Silva of Manchester United (C) celebrates scoring the opening goal with teammates (L-R) Rafael Da Silva, Patrice Evra, John O'Shea, Javier Hernandez and Chris Smalling during the FA Cup sponsored by E.On Sixth Round match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford on March 12, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

On Saturday evening at Old Trafford, Manchester United FC defeated Arsenal FC 2-0 in a FA Cup quarter-final tie to earn passage to Wembley for their 27th FA Cup semi-final, more than any other club. Fabio opened the scoring in the 28th minute by hammering home a loose ball after a terrific Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez header forced a save by Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia. Wayne Rooney nodded home United's 2nd goal from close range after a Rafael cross was deflected up by Arsenal defender Johan Djourou. With the defeat, Arsenal has been knocked out of their 3rd competition in a two-week span; their only remaining hope to end their six-year trophy draught is to chase down United for the Barclays Premier League title. 


OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS:

United began the match with seven defenders on the pitch and it was unclear prior to the match what shape the home side would play in. The Red Devils came out in a '4-2-3-1/4-3-3' hybrid shape, neither would be a wrong description. Chicharito led the attacking line and the Da Silva twins flanked him; Rafael on the right and Fabio on the left. Rooney operated in the center of the pitch as a central attacking midfielder. John O'Shea played as a holding midfielder and Darron Gibson joined him in the center of the pitch in more of a reserved box-to-box role. Wes Brown was tasked as the right-back and Patrice Evra as the left-back. Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling were the center-back pairing with Edwin van der Sar in between the posts.

Arsenal fielded a strong lineup and played in their usual '4-2-3-1' shape. Almunia was in goal and his center-back tandem was Djourou and Laurent Koscielny. Bacary Sagna was the right-back and Kieran Gibbs the left-back. In the center of the pitch, Denilson played the role of a double-pivot and Jack Wilshere played as a box-to-box central midfielder. Abou Diaby was higher up the pitch in a play-making role and he was flanked by Andrei Arshavin and Samir Nasri in the attacking midfield band. Robin Van Persie was the striker and played in a "false-nine" role. It all looked something like this.... 

 

1ST HALF:

* From the very start, it was evident that Arsenal were dominating possession and that United were struggling to just string together consecutive passes. Many may argue that this is predictable when you start seven defenders. However, there were definitely a few positives to the start as well. The gameplan seemed to be absorb pressure, stay organized in defense, and strike Arsenal on the counter; particularly down the flanks behind Arsenal's full-backs. Both Sagna and Gibbs got caught out too high up the pitch at times and the Da Silva twins were running into that space on counter-attacks and causing Arsenal trouble. When United lost possession in their attacking third, the twins and Chicharito were relentless in their pressing as well. In general this was working because (A) Arsenal couldn't unlock United with a killer pass in the attack versus the Reds well organized defense and (B) Arsenal seemed to lack energy and this would make sense considering their recent fixture list. 

* The biggest piece of evidence that Arsenal may have been gassed from their recent matches was their lack of pressing high up the pitch. When the Gunners are at their best, they're able to string passes together but also able to get the ball back through relentless pressure. It appeared that they were happy to concede this today. 

* The reason that I felt that United's shape could be described as a '4-3-3' is because Rooney was playing very deep, essentially as a 3rd central midfielder. When the home side were out of possession, Rooney provided defensive support in the center by staying goal-side of Denilson. 

* About 15-20 minutes into the half, Arsenal began to grow into the match a bit more and began to control it. United were becoming a bit too one-dimensional and got into the habit of just launching long-balls for Chicharito, Rafael, and Fabio to run onto. This was a by product of two main reasons: (1) United still struggled to string together passes and only Rooney was offering any sort of play-making ability. (2) Arsenal's early vulnerability to get hit on the counter might have over-encouraged United to continue with this strategy. It became less effective as soon as Arsenal adjusted to what United was doing; Gibbs in particular began to stay back more in defense. Sagna was generally much more effective than Gibbs in providing support in the attack. 

* John O'Shea played very deep and he looked to control his area of the pitch; Diaby was a complete non-factor. It'll be interesting to see if someone did a Guardian chalkboard in regards to his tackles/interceptions. He also seemed to do well in picking up Van Persie when Vidic and Smalling passed him on when the striker came deep looking for the ball.

* Vidic and Smalling were fantastic in their communication. As mentioned above, they did well to pass off Van Persie to O'Shea when the striker roamed deep and the center-backs also did well to pick up the diagonal runs into the center from Nasri and Arshavin. 

* United scored against the run of play in the 28th minute when Rafael released Fabio, who then layed it off for Rooney, who then played a superbly weighted ball for Chicharito which resulted in a fantastic header on goal. Almunia made the save but Fabio reacted well and hammered home the loose ball. 

* Arsenal had the better of United for the remainder of the half and van der Sar came up with some big saves. Arsenal finished the half with 60% possession and out-passed United 328-191 according to Opta. United were fortunate to be ahead at half but it wasn't as if Arsenal were world-beaters or anything. 

2ND HALF:

* Fabio and Rafael may have run 1,000km in that first half at the pace of a Ferrari, so it wasn't terribly surprising to see Fabio subbed off at half. It's just unclear if the Brazilian came off due to fatigue or injury, although the former might be the case as Fabio was seen on at least two occasions with his hands on his knees trying to catch his breath. Rafael would be subbed off in the 64th minute. The twins were vital tonight and performed superbly in the attack, roles that are mostly unfamiliar to the defenders. United supporters should be thrilled for what they offered the club tonight, both in effort and tactical flexibility. 

* Valencia returned from injury and was tasked out in his usual role on the right flank. I was a bit worried that he would be a step or two slow in return, but he looked very solid and showed a pacy burst at times. He was very direct with his play and he did well to provide width in the attack on the right side. 

* The change shifted Rooney to the left flank, where he continually came inside looking to create. O'Shea stayed deep in the center of the pitch and Rafael moved to the center of the midfield. Ryan Giggs later came on for Rafael and it was essentially a "like-for-like" substitution with Giggs staying in the center. Brown continued to play narrow on the right side and Evra began to stay deeper after the 2nd goal was scored. The shape became more of a '4-3-3/4-5-1' hybrid. It looked something like this out there for much of the 2nd half:

* United continued to play on the counter-attack and were very fluid this half. It was a treat to watch. The movement of Rooney and Chicharito continued to be excellent, albeit in a different role for the former in this half. Rooney kept coming towards the center of the pitch and was fantastic in linking play. United had much more width and direct play on the right side with the return of Valencia who did well to whip in crosses. 

* Rafael again was asked to play in another unfamiliar role but the Brazilian proved to be able for about the 20 minutes that he was tasked in the center of the pitch. He did well to harass the Arsenal central midfielders and even did well in the build-up to the 2nd goal. 

* Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger made positive substitutions that were attack-minded but it did little to effect the match. The main change was bringing on striker Marouane Chamakh and dropping Van Persie a bit deeper. However, the match was essentially over when Djourou was forced off due to a shoulder injury and Arsenal had to finish with 10 players after Wenger had used up all of his substitutions. 

* Possession was much more even this half and United were the better side this half. They were clinical in absorbing pressure, clogging up attacking channels, and hitting Arsenal with precision on the counter-attack. It's a style that has worked well versus Arsenal in the past, and a tactic that I fully expect Sir Alex to use at the Emirates later in the season in a potentially title-deciding match. 

* Before the 2nd goal, van der Sar was superb in making crucial saves and without those, the match could have played out much differently. Surprisingly, his counter-part Almunia was very solid as well following his terrific outing versus FC Barcelona. 

MISC THOUGHTS:

* I've been rather curious to see how Fabio would fare if he was deployed out wide in the midfield. However, I figured with the crucial stretch run that I wouldn't get the chance during the current season. However, my curiosity was addressed as injuries forced Fergie's hand. The Brazilian was superb and gave his all during his 45 minutes on the pitch. This might be a role he could adapt to, especially considering that Evra has penned a new long-term deal with the club. Fabio could provide a crucial role as a wide player, both in attack and in backing up Evra.

* Overall, the impact of our young players today was extremely encouraging, and a treat to watch. The twins, Smalling, and Chicharito were all very good today and provided a tremendous energy spark to a patched-up squad. 

* The Vidic-Smalling pairing is starting to become an extremely reliable, one that I wouldn't trade for any other pairing in the Premier League. Well, maybe I'd trade for Rio...

* There appears to be no chance for another season; it's too bad that van der Sar is going to be hanging up the gloves at season's end. He still is one of the best 'keepers in the world and consistently comes up with massive saves.

* Rooney's touch and range of passing were superb today and he's starting to bag goals again. He's showing more consistent signs of being our talisman again.

* So many positives today: a patch-work side that defeated a very strong Arsenal side, the performances from the youngsters, Rooney, the versatility of players, and knocking out Arsenal from another competition. 

* Man of the Match: the man between the posts, van der Sar. However, it's an encouraging sign when you have many viable options for the honors. 

Cheers everyone! That was a fun match! 

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